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Something Wicked This Way Comes

****
1983

‘…a terrific family film that keys into the spooky rather than the outright scary…’

There’s something different about the way that American’s celebrate Halloween. Not that they have the monopoly on this worldwide, and venerable festival. But there’s a feeling you get in American towns in the falls, the last breath of warm air, the leaves spinning in the wind, that’s unique, and that feeling is very much to the fore in Disney’ Something Wicked This Way Comes. Something Not Typical of Disney would be an alternative title for this adaptation of Ray Bradbury’s book, with a script written by the author himself. Post-production rethinks may have lessened the potency of Bradbury’s ideas, but this is still a terrific family film that keys into the spooky rather than the outright scary.

In a scenario beloved by Stephen King, and part inspiration for his book Needful Things, this is the story of Green Town, Illinois, a small town where another world appears, taking the form of a travelling carnival and led by Mr Dark, played with saturnine presence by Jonathan Pryce. He’s after two boys, Jim Nightshade and Will Halloway, who have glimpsed the sinister secret of his shows, and while Mr Dark finds it easy to lure the other townspeople into his circus parade, the one fly in the ointment is Charles Halloway (Jason Robards Jr), Will’s father, who senses the evil purpose behind Dark’s arrival…

If you’re used to Disney offering up soul-less retreads, think again; Jack Clayton brings a Gothic sensibility to the struggle between Dark and Halloway, helped by two ideal actors who make their roles three-dimensional. There’s plenty of evidence of post-production interference, an post-Indiana Jones crowd-pleasing action scene with spiders shot long after the rest of the film was in the can. Yet most of the film exudes a homespun sense of menace and wonder, from Will and Jim’s first glimpse of the train to the Dust Witch (Pam Grier) who seeks to silence the ‘tender Christians’ whose souls Dark covets.

Bradbury’s prose gets a chance to breathe, even if the result may have caused consternation to the unwary; the opening dialogue features the disturbing image of a cat suffocating a baby’s breath, and that’s before Dark arrives. With his sinister merry-go-round and elevated heels, Pryce makes Dark the Devil incarnate, and enough to scare the most sensible adult, and the battle of wills between the two men makes for some engrossing confrontation scenes. This is a colourful, original and atmospheric film that’s perfect for the precocious; offering up horror tropes but grounded in small-town Americana, this is about the most wholesome horror film ever made, and while out of favour with Disney’s current mode, is well worth exhuming for the long, darkening nights ahead.

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  1. Fabulous and eloquent review! The book/movie provides a glimpse of HEL (& I don’t mean Helsinki airport) in a setting reminiscent of Toby Tyler’s Circus Boy heyday in middle America (not unlike middle earth if imagination is stretched like Silly Putty). Jason Robards provided the right voice for Bradbury’s magical words and Pryce did DARK right. Bradbury knew the perfect time for carnival was ripe autumn. Amid sniffs of horror and whiffs of building fear, you can almost smell candy apples, loomy earth, leather, tent canvas, and the oiled, mechanical grinding of a mind weighing heavy options. Thanks!

    • Thanks! I really love the atmosphere of this film, and although there are audience sops, it’s a unique film that offers a great take on Bradbury’s world. Robards and Pryce could not be better, and the way you describe it is perfect; something in the Fall air that spells change, and the mechanics of the fair setting up chime with that. Great comment!

    • Good one! You should be writing about films with puns like that! I really like the atmosphere of this film, and Pryce and Robards are a great heavyweight bout…

  2. The book I found disturbing but I found most of Bradbury’s writing to be disturbing. So I’ve never been tempted by any film like this.

    I am glad that Disney got egg on their face, but they seemed to have learned the wrong lesson 🙁

    • It’s a literate and intelligent film, didn’t fit into Disney or horror genres at the time, but worth seeking out as a road not travelled by general audiences…

  3. This scared me when I saw it as a young lad. Pryce is excellent, as I remember. Plus a fine adaptation of Bradbury’s creepy book. I want to watch it around Halloween now 😈

  4. Interesting…I’m restarting my Disney plus subscription in October again (Mandalorian season 2 is coming so can’t miss that of course), but will watch this one as well then. Like the story you describe here, and you grabbed my attention even more with mentioning Stephen King😊

    • I have a feeling I didn’t see it on my last scan through Disney Plus; like Watcher in the Woods, it seems to have been banished as not ‘on brand’. It’s great stuff if you can find it…

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